Review

Sisyphus: A Review of Harriet Murav’s David Bergelson’s Strange New World: Untimeliness and Futurity

Miriam Schulz

David Bergelson’s Strange New World: Untime­li­ness and Futu­ri­ty, by Har­ri­et Murav. Bloom­ing­ton, Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press. 2019. 343 pages.

Timing is everything, they say, and in the case of Harriet Murav it almost feels like she was ahead of ours: her much-anticipated monograph of one of Yiddish literature’s unofficial klasiker, Dovid Bergelson (1884–1952), appeared just as our own ‘pandemic age’ was dawning. Not a typical biography, it instead offers a study of the writer’s life through careful readings of selected works (including texts heretofore marginalized or entirely ignored), written in Kiev and Moscow (1909–1921), in Berlin (1921–1934), and finally back in Moscow (1934–1952). This long-overdue intervention into scholarship on Bergelson—scholarship that, like Yiddish Studies in general, has suffered historically from myopic anti-Communist partisan approaches—centers on the texts’ evolving approaches to the texture of time and temporality.

Before David Bergelson’s Strange New World, the writer was mainly “... remembered more for the way [he] died than for the extraordinary body of literature” he produced while alive (317). Bergelson was among those Yiddish writers who were put to death by Joseph Stalin on August 12th, 1952 for counterrevolutionary activity, bourgeois nationalism, and treason. When discussed at all outside the Soviet circle, his life’s work was essentially severed in two: the ‘glorious times’ before his fateful public embrace of the Soviet Union in 1926, and the ‘negligible time’ after it, when he was deemed not only ‘too Soviet’ but in fact responsible for his own execution. In her temporal focus on ‘belatedness’ and ‘futurity’ as the central leitmotif of Bergelson’s oeuvre, Murav not only attempts to make Bergelson whole again by eschewing “overly ideological approaches” and tricky political questions of “what Bergelson believed” (19), but also to trace his intellectual continuities, transformations, and ruptures over the course of forty years. So, how does this Yiddish writer contribute, through Murav’s framing and contextualization, to our modern preoccupation with the texture of time, the force of the past and memory, and their sway over being? How does such a temporal inquiry illuminate the specific contemporaneity, intellectual hybridity, and radical evolution of Bergelson’s deeply political, and specifically socialist, thought? And, der iker, how can this Bergelson study be useful for us, and for the study of specifically Soviet Yiddish Studies?

Murav’s careful reading introduces Bergelson to English readers as an important interlocutor to his significantly more celebrated contemporaries, such as Henri Bergson, Viktor Shklovsky, Walter Benjamin, Marcel Proust, and Sigmund Freud, and as a figure anticipating later thinkers, such as Giorgio Agamben, Pierre Nora, and Hannah Arendt. His project of thinking and writing within, about, and against time was much like theirs, and no less developed because it happened to have been written in Yiddish. She shows how Bergelson’s counterintuitive take on the new technology of the train in “Arum vokzal” (At the Depot, 1909) plays with the symbol of sped-up progress only to discuss those being thrust backward, unable to catch up, those watching as trains pass (41). In the works that Bergelson wrote in the 1920s in Berlin (i.e., in the shadow of the Russian Civil War and the then-unparalleled killings of Jews in Ukraine) Murav dwells on sudden flashes of the shtetl-past that spark up in that German metropolis of progress—not as mere nostalgia but as a (destructive and productive) force that holds sway over life in the present (167). With the same stroke, Murav traces the writer’s literary creation of the “strange new world” that the 1917 revolution had birthed, including new conceptualizations of time, judgement, and redemption (Part 3), and the way he, literally, tried to keep up with the pace of Soviet progress, but allegedly failed (Part 4). Finally, though his 1944 play Prints Ruveny (Prince Reuveni) “sets back the clock to the sixteenth century” and links the Inquisition to the Nazi genocide (292), she sees the move from motifs of “waiting, dreaming, belatedness, and failure to act” (296) towards a call for active fighting—for seizing the opportunity of changing the course of time.

Had I read Murav’s book before the COVID-19 pandemic, there would have been no doubt that it makes a definite contribution to the fields of both Soviet Yiddish studies and the growing corpus of scholarship into post-Kantian perceptions of time. But reading Murav’s careful examination of it as the COVID pandemic unfolds—and as new variants, waves, and vaccine apartheid show us this catastrophe is nowhere near its end—makes Bergelson’s quasi-obsession with how past, present, and future relate to one another, with the dilemma of belatedness as an apparent inborn feature of the human condition, and his af tselokhes insistence of the potentiality of renewal and futurity, all seem very timely indeed. Faced with the unchangeable porosity of our bodies and a planet whose clock is ticking for everyone to hear, are we not all in fact always somehow structurally behind, but also somehow in need of responses and action, which would probably be too late to begin with. Indeed, our viral state of in-betweenness, the perpetual time-lag between the hyper-eventfulness of infection waves, death rates, vaccine quotas, floods and fires, and our simultaneously syrupy lockdown boredom, is poignantly captured by Antonio Gramsci’s idea of the interregnum. This kind of period, where “the old is dying and the new cannot be born,” is accompanied by a “variety of morbid symptoms” 1 1 Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1971), 276. of beyond-human-precarity, and it is certainly reminiscent of the chaotic periods Bergelson experienced. 2 2 Zygmunt Bauman and Carlo Bordoni have referred to the first half of the 20th century in this framework, see Zygmunt Bauman, “Times of Interregnum,” Ethics & Global Politics 5:1 (2012): 49–56; Carlo Bordoni, Interregnum: Beyond Liquid Modernity (Bielefeld: transcript-Verlag, 2016). Like Bergelson, what we know is exactly that we do not know; like him, we have no time to mourn. Therefore, thinking with Bergelson at this time in particular may be helpful. But is Murav’s Bergelson radical enough?

Murav expertly moves away from a merely ‘literary’ study. Her ‘temporal’ reading of Bergelson rightly “suggests alternatives to the conclusion that [he] was interested only in decline, stagnation, and the end” (18), and her decision to portray “Bergson as an interlocutor for Bergelson” can lead to “the possibility of transformation” (18): Bergelson-through-Bergson allows her an “emphasis on futurity and renewal” (21) – a necessary counterbalance, in her mind, to the ‘crisis’ of the humanities today and its concomitant embrace of futility. While I happily agree with the second part, the first to me perhaps betrays more of Murav’s thinking than Bergelson’s—namely her ‘contiguity’ with the recent Gilles Deleuze-led revival of Bergson.

However, isn’t it also convincing that Bergelson, who underwent a socialist awakening in the aftermath of the failed 1905 revolution, 3 3 Uninterested/uninvolved before the 1905 revolutionary upheaval, Bergelson admitted that he was initiated to political thought and activism by chance by “attending rallies, [taking] part in a few demonstrations, wander[ing] about in workers’ areas, read[ing] by chance whatever socialist literature came to hand.” See Dovid Bergelson, “Materyaln tsu D. Bergelsons bio-bibliografye,” Visnshaft un revolutsye: fertlyoriker zhurnal 1–2 (Kiev: April–June 1934): 67–73, 69; discussed and cited in Joseph Sherman, “David Bergelson (1884–1952): A Biography,” in David Bergelson: From Modernism to Socialist Realism, ed. by Joseph Sherman and Gennady Estraikh (London: Legenda, 2007), 7–79, 8. would have been aware of Georg Friedrich Hegel’s earlier idea of ‘nonsynchonicity’ (Ungleichzeitigkeit) – of “untimeliness itself as an ineluctable condition of historical experience” 4 4 Rebecca Comay, Mourning Sickness: Hegel and the French Revolution (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 7. ? His ideas were certainly making a comeback among Marxist humanists in Bergelson’s interwar Berlin. Taking a cue from the master, Karl Marx similarly diagnosed die deutsche Misère, stating that the Germans “are philosophical contemporaries of the present without being its historical contemporaries.” 5 5 Karl Marx, “From ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Rights: Introduction’,” in The Portable Karl Marx, ed. by Eugene Kamenka (New York: Viking Press, 1883), 115–124, 118. Another writer who seems very relevant to a discussion of Bergelson’s ideas of catastrophe and futurity is Vladimir Ilych Lenin: his conception of catastrophe, and his belief in human agency during a revolution and, more importantly, in the transitional period of its wake, are significant to understanding Bergelson’s writings. This is not what-aboutism: I am trying to shed light on the meaningfulness of Murav’s choice of Bergson as the ‘ground zero’ of discussing Bergelson. It is a choice and should be analyzed as such.

Bergelson’s lifespan itself falls neatly in the timeframe of 1870 to 1950, the very age recent scholarship (which Murav, sadly, ignores) has determined as being the “emergence of modern times.” 6 6 Vanessa Ogle, The Global Transformation of Time, 1870–1950 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015); for a review of recent important literature, see idem., “Time, Temporality and the History of Capitalism,” Past and Present 243 (May 2019): 312–327. The transformation of time that took place socially, politically, and culturally in an increasingly globalizing world was tied to the logic of a capitalism that is both relentlessly driven towards expansion and obsessed with the future: it was in need of the implementation of time zones, clock time, summertime, disciplined hours of work and rest. These constructs, even if nowadays neatly internalized in the liberal capitalist West, have their vexed histories – histories that Bergson and Bergelson experienced and engaged with. This comes into sharper focus when recent critiques of Bergson’s politics of time are considered. A deeper engagement with the reception of the philosopher’s ideas would have enriched Murav’s reading: decolonizing Bergson’s work does not mean simply dismissing it. 7 7 A more critical engagement with the context of Bergson’s thought would have had to at least problematize, as most recent scholarship tries to do, some of Bergson’s temporal frameworks and economies of time as entangled in the colonial context he was writing in – all the more so because of his wide-ranging influence, including on decolonial movements such as Négritude. Alia Al-Saji has recently pointed, for instance, to Bergson’s temporal schema of open/closed societies, signifying the difference between “civilized” and “primitive.” According to Al-Saji, Bergson’s development of this schema in his late work The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1932), which Murav cites (324), establishes a troubling dichotomy that plays a “structuring role in colonial ways of knowing” and still justifies “colonial and neocolonial paternalism.” See: Alia Al-Saji, “Decolonizing Bergson: The Temporal Schema of the Open and the Closed,” in Beyond Bergson: Examining Race and Colonialism through the Writings of Henri Bergson, ed. by Andreas J. Pitts and Mark William Westmoreland (New York: SUNY Press, 2019), 13–37, 13. While the volume appeared simultaneously with Murav’s investigation, I am trying to make a more general point here about an abundance of critical Bergson scholarship she could have more openly engaged with. Critically and creatively rereading “Arum vokzal” or Nokh alemen (The End of Everything, 1913), such moving meditations on how exactly the transformation of time(s) affects those that are systemically left behind, or for that matter the chronopolitics at play in Bergelson’s fateful pro-Soviet manifesto “Dray tsenter” (Three Centers, 1926) in this way would be a possible step towards decolonizing Yiddish Studies, as well. 8 8 Nor am I the only scholar calling for the decolonizing of Jewish studies (or even Judaism) at large. Gilah Kletenik and Rafael Rachel Neis published a similar call lately in Religion Dispatches, which received a nasty backlash. See: Gilah Kletenik and Rafael Rachel Neis, “What’s the Matter with Jewish Studies? Sexism, Harassment, and Neoliberalism, For Starters” (April 19, 2021). See: https://religiondispatches.org/whats-the-matter-with-jewish-studies-sexism-harassment-and-neoliberalism-for-starters/, accessed 08/03/2021. See also Santiago Slabodsky, Decolonial Judaism: Triumphal Failures of Barbaric Thinking (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

The great advantage in approaching Bergelson temporally lies exactly in his transitional positionality, his exposure to monumental 20th century time-transformation experiments, 9 9 I mean here mainly the difference between capitalist and Soviet experimenting with and structuring of work-time. The latter, an ultimately unsuccessful social project, tried to reorder the human relationship to time: rather than force the worker to adjust to the idea of abstract time (time-discipline), Soviet socialism aimed at organizing production so as to master time itself. For a definite study on Marxist time-conceptualizations, which formed the basis for Soviet institutionalization that Murav ignores, see Stephen E. Hanson, Time and Revolution: Marxism and the Design of Soviet Institutions (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997). and their mediation to ‘Jewish time.’ It is exactly the clash of these time-economies that is so beautifully explored in his “Mit eyn nakht veyniker” (One Night Less, 1927, which Murav mentions [146-147]), which revolves around a temporally undisciplined artist-pariah, or the even lesser-known “Birger Voly Brener” (Citizen Voly Brener, 1927, which she elides). The latter in fact defends a Soviet ‘timescape’: conversing with a German-Jewish visitor living a ‘Mendelsohnian’ temporality (i.e., ‘Jew at home, citizen on the street’), a traditionally pious elderly Jew, now living in Moscow, proves—through Talmudic exegesis—that Jew and citizen can, in fact, coexist.

To this reviewer, Murav seems significantly more critical when dealing with the Soviet time-experiment, for the most part limiting Bergelson’s engagement to “Marxist-Leninist theorization of a new future” (2), a standard account of overly-optimistic teleologies of progress leading smoothly from feudalism to capitalism to socialism and then communism. This critical imbalance is meaningful: it decontextualizes Bergelson’s Soviet works outside of the Soviet Yiddish literary tradition, while a broader view of that tradition reveals his work as more ‘conventional’ within it, rather than an anomaly or a dissenting voice (240). His allusion to the Inquisition for the discussion the Nazi genocide, as mentioned above regarding Prints Ruveny, for instance, was, by the mid-1940s, a decade-long and well-used temporal trope in Soviet-Yiddish antifascist activism and literature. It was in fact the ban against staging the play, if anything, that was significant: Stalinist temporality and chronopolitics changed after 1945.

Can Bergelson in fact even be ‘salvaged’ if we so negatively accept what is dubbed ‘socialist propaganda’? Such a move would fall under what Mark Fisher has called “capitalist realism” (our quasi-equivalent to ‘socialist realism’) – the sense that capitalism is the only viable cultural, political, economic, and temporal system, coupled with the inability to imagine a coherent alternative to it. 10 10 Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is there no Alternative? (New York: Zero Books, 2009), 2. This conjecture is exactly where Murav’s best intentions of ‘rescuing’ Bergelson’s work from ‘ideological’ misinterpretation, i.e. exactly the Cold War tendency to dejudaize-cum-Sovietize and then immediately dismiss him, sometimes fall short. The solution she offers in order to ‘reclaim’ and ‘legitimize’ Bergelson, and specifically from a ‘Jewish standpoint,’ even after his Soviet conversion, is to root his work firmly exactly in that French-(Jewish) and German-Jewish thought that the academy so fetishizes. She readily admits that while Bergelson may not have been “personally acquainted with Bergson, Benjamin, Shklovsky, or Freud,” it is her contention simply that they “overlapped in time, space, and in the realm of thought, ideas, and expression” (17).When it comes to Marxism, though, she draws a firmer line: “Although the Bergelson archive is incomplete, there is no statement about Marxism in the available letters and papers” (205), suggesting to her that Bergelson most probably was not a Marxist-Leninist. Marxist thought only at times “meshes with” or “collides against” Bergelson’s (206).

It is notable, in this context, that Murav frames her overall goal of defining Bergelson’s evolving “basic [creative] building blocks” in spatial terms, explaining her reliance on Dan Miron’s concept of “contiguity”; 11 11 Dan Miron, From Continuity to Contiguity: Toward a New Jewish Literary Thinking (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010). a framework for rethinking literary influences as an “open-ended model of parallel and overlapping thought among a range of writers in a free-floating zone of contact” (15). While I welcome the desire to embed Bergelson firmly in his context(s), the idea of “zone of contacts,” to me, upholds and affirms the idea that there are clear boundaries between a ‘Jewish’ and a ‘non-Jewish’ cultural and intellectual sphere. And such a thinking allows for zero-sum games, too: Murav is adamant to assert that “Bergelson’s commitments were more artistic than political; his lifelong project was building Yiddish literature, not socialism; his lifelong love was the Yiddish language, as he said during his secret trial in 1952” (206).

Finally, a word on structure. Murav’s relies on a linear, chronological structure with thematic foci, and while expertly handled, it is perhaps a surprising move in a study about a writer who made it part of his art to break the smooth flow of time (see especially her brilliant discussion of Bergelson’s literary use of stuttering and other bodily impediments (e.g. Part 2, Chapter 4: The Glitch)). More importantly, though, chronology can become ideological when it has the tinge of determinism. Murav follows nine chapters of superbly insightful literary reading with a somewhat predictable take on the last period of Bergelson’s life, i.e., his trial and murder: “[d]elay and postponement, the defining characteristics of Bergelson’s fiction, found their way into [his] real-life tragedy” (309). In his final speech, the writer referred to his past fictions ranging back to the dawn of the post-1917 “strange new world” to make sense of his impending demise and lamented “lagging behind Soviet progress” because of his love of Yiddish (318). A standard defense strategy in Soviet trial situations, to Murav, ignoring its corrupt temporal dichotomy of ‘civilization’ and the ‘primitive,’ there is cause for celebration: “[i]n admitting to ‘nationalism’ by confessing his memory of his childhood, [...] Bergelson ‘re-members’ himself to the Jewish people” (316/317).

I would argue Bergelson had never, in fact, dis-membered himself. Here we are at the crux of Murav’s understanding of ‘Jewishness’ – one that is ultimately never compatible with ‘Sovietness,’ or real-existing and envisioned socialism for that matter. But however we read the trial transcripts, I believe what can be agreed on is that Bergelson was in fact defending himself as a representative of one distinct Soviet Jewish subjectivity at a trial presumably ruled on even before it started. And I am certainly not the only one to point to this: Anna Schur has poignantly shown how Bergelson’s ‘performance’ at the trial and those of the other ‘accused’ show us that a multiplicity of Soviet Jewish subjectivities existed, a multiplicity that complicates both the supposed monolith of official Soviet discourse on nationalism and nationality, and, in turn, Western discourses on Jewishness. 12 12 Anna Schur, “Jewish in Form, Socialist in Content? Jewish Identity and Soviet Subjectivity at the Trial of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee,” East European Jewish Affairs 48:2 (2018): 149-173, 163–164.

With this monumental study, Harriet Murav provides the first comprehensive literary biography of Bergelson and a rich intercultural contextualization of the Yiddish writer’s work – a view of the man we have never gotten to see like this before. And it is exactly with this nuanced view that I have tried to rigorously engage here. Reading her book in these syrupy times, I couldn’t help but think of Yiddish writer Der Nister, who in 1939 described Bergelson’s evolution as a thinker and writer with, perhaps, a nod to Lenin’s 1922 beautifully crafted “Notes of a Publicist.” 13 13 Vladimir I. Lenin, “Notes of a Publicist’, published posthumously in Pravda, 16 April 1924; Collected Works, vol. 33 (Moscow 1966), 204–207. Further on this see Slavoj Žižek, “How to Begin from the Beginning,” New Left Review 57 (May-June 2009): 43–55. The latter used the analogy of mountaineering, that dangerous balancing act between ascent and descent to make reaching the summit of a “steep and hitherto unexplored mountain” (204) so much as a possibility, to describe the importance of retreat in the revolutionary process. In keeping with Lenin, Der Nister admitted that he’d always seen Bergelson as “someone heavily laden with [an] artistic mission, as if climbing a mountain. It is never easy to arrive [...] and up to today, I still see this mountaineer with a heavy rucksack of ballads.” 14 14 Der Nister wrote an open letter published in the Birobidzhan journal Forpost in 1939, later reprinted in: Der Nister, “A briv tsu Dovid Bergelson,” in Der Nister, Dertseylungen un eseyen (1940–1948) (New York: YKUF, 1957), 295. A Sisyphus figure, Bergelson never did arrive, but he possibly reached a much higher altitude than most others, illusions and vertigo aside. For he never stopped trying to use his literature to process our collective uncertainty and rethink the interconnectedness of past and present, belatedness and futurity, and the productive potential of human agency within it. And in that, he has always been profoundly political, if not revolutionary, and is now, probably, timelier than ever.

MLA STYLE
Schulz, Miriam. “Sisyphus: A Review of Harriet Murav's David Bergelson’s Strange New World: Untimeliness and Futurity.” In geveb, December 2021: https://ingeveb.org/articles/sisyphus-a-review-of-harriet-muravs-david-bergelsons-strange-new-world-untimeliness-and-futurity.
CHICAGO STYLE
Schulz, Miriam. “Sisyphus: A Review of Harriet Murav's David Bergelson’s Strange New World: Untimeliness and Futurity.” In geveb (December 2021): Accessed Jan 22, 2022.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Miriam Schulz

Miriam Schulz holds a Ph.D. in Yiddish Studies from Columbia University and currently works as the Ray D. Wolfe Postdoctoral Fellow at the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies and the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies at the University of Toronto.